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Sweelinck was the last and most important composer of the musical era of the Netherlanders and one of the most famous organists and teachers of his time. None of his vocal works were set in his native language -they were mostly in French- and none of his sacred songs were written for public worship services but rather for private gatherings. Chantez à Dieu is a setting of Psalm 96 as presented in the French Metric Psalter of Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze, later to be known as the Genevan Psalter. In this Psalter the Psalms are versified and assigned to a melody built from the church modes; Psalm 96 being assigned to a melody built in the Dorian mode. Sweelinck sets his polyphonic version in the style of the “cantus firmus psalm,” where the quoted melody is dispersed among different voices and interrupted by interludes that reference the original melody in rhythmic and melodic derivations. Chantez à Dieu was published in Sweelinck’s Livre quatriesme et conclusionnal des pseaumes de David in 1621, concluding thus his setting of all the Psalms shortly before his death. Sweelinck’s polyphonic setting of the complete Psalter is considered a monument of Netherlandish music and unequalled in the sacred polyphony of its time.
Palestrina stands in music history as one of the towering composers of the 16th century and a very prolific composer of church music. The mastery and balance of his polyphonic style helped reconcile the functional and aesthetic aims of Catholic church music of the post-Tridentine era (after the Council of Trent), earning him the mythical status of “savior of church music.” Sicut Cervus is found in Palestrina’s second book of motets for four voices, Moctetorum liber secundus (1584). Both the first and second books of motets for four voices depict the equilibrium in composition that has been seen as the hallmark of Palestrina’s polyphony: successive melodic segments carefully crafted to create a well-balanced melodic motion, even in inner voices, and a control of dissonance that creates a texture of great purity and consistency of sonority. Sicut Cervus is a good example of such polyphony. Palestrina crafts the motet in a way in which the imitative lines are almost identical to each other and with melodic entrances on either the first or fifth scale degrees creating a very balanced and open sonority. Word painting is achieved with melismatic runs on the word “aquarum” implying the movement of the water, syncopated movement and entrances at the fourth and sixth scale degrees at “desiderat” implying the dramatic desire, and syncopated melismas in the first and fifth scale degrees to emphasize the word God at “Deus.”
The Silver Swan (1612)
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
Gibbons was one of the leading English composers of the early 17th century and a noted keyboard virtuoso. His reputation as a composer rests largely on his sacred works, which circulated widely and are still a part of the English sacred music repertory. The Silver Swan and almost all of his secular output are contained in his First Set of Madrigals and Motets (1612), work that demonstrates Gibbons’ affinity to the earlier tradition of the partsong and consort song. In The Silver Swan, Gibbons presents the ancient legend of the swan, who lives in silence all its life but breaks into beautiful singing moments before its death. Word painting is achieved by the use of polyphony, adding imitative lines to the initial homophonic structure and multiplying the recurrences of the lines as death approaches. The imitative lines disappear at the cadence of “Leaning her breast against the reedy shore” where a raised fourth and a lowered seventh create a poignant harmony resembling the death of the swan and leave a mostly homophonic structure with one distinctive line, reminiscent of the swan, fading into the final cadence.
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Il bianco e dolce cigno (1593)
Jacques Arcadelt (1507-1568)
The eroticism of the poem becomes evident as the lyricist contrasts his own death to that of the mythical swan: while the swan literally dies, the poet suffers a figuratively kind of death, one that fills him with desire and would very willingly endure thousandfold a day! The piece is mostly homophonic and thus lends itself for text painting in various ways. A lowered seventh adds poignancy to the crying at “ed io piangendo,” a sudden short polyphonic section with a momentary resolution to the deceptive paints the blissfulness at “io moro beato” and, after another homophonic session, a sudden outburst of close imitative polyphony that actively layers melodies on top of each other creates the anxious excitement and intimacy of the “daily thousand deaths.” Il bianco e dolce cigno was published in Arcadelt’s Il primo libro di madrigali (1539). Though he excelled in other genres and also published four more collections of madrigals, Il primo libro di madrigali became his most well known work and was very widely disseminated. Paintings of the time depict musicians playing Arcadelt’s compositions, portraying thus the acquired fame of the composer.
Cantique de Jean Racine (1865)
Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)
Fauré’s Cantique is a paraphrase of the Tuesday matins hymn Consors paternis luminis, traditionally ascribed to St. Ambrose, written by the 17th century poet and dramatist Jean Racine. Published in Nicolas Letorneux’s Bréviaire Romain en latin et français (1688), the poem was soon condemned as heretic and banned from liturgical practice due to its Jancenistic tendencies (differing theological movement). The ban was subsequently removed but the poem was never included in the Roman Breviary. Fauré set the poem to music in 1865 and it earned him the first prize in composition during his last year as student at the École Niedermeyer. Though a very young work, Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine does reflect the style tendencies that the composer would later adopt, paying very special attention to harmony and sonority for expressive purposes. From the initial key of Db major Faure travels to the mediant tonality of f minor when depicting the supplication of the penitent, highlighting the phrase “divine saviour” in its momentary parallel major tonality of Ab, returning immediately to f minor to finish the anguished petition. Back in the original key Fauré places the request of God’s grace in the tonality of Ab, now serving as dominant, and moves to the parallel minor key of b-flat minor when depicting hell and a languishing soul. At the end of the work Fauré returns to the original Db that modulates to its dominant Ab when referencing God, achieving thus the following harmonic associations throughout the work: Db for the supplicant people, f and b-flat minor for anguish and hell, and the dominant Ab as divine references.
O sacrum convivium (1937)
Messiaen’s compositional style reflects the modernism of his time and its quest to depart from traditional Western harmony: looking back into the Greek modes, devising his own modes of limited transposition, and eventually incorporating his ornithology research into his works using his transcriptions of bird songs into his own compositions. Attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, the Latin text of O sacrum convivium was included in the ancient liturgy of the Liber Usualis as a Second Vespers antiphon for the Feast of Corpus Christi depicting the wonder of the sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). According to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the given wine and bread are transformed into the literal blood and body of Christ. In his setting of O sacrum convivium, Messiaen constructs the haunting, mysterious atmosphere of this transubstantiation devising a very open organum-like harmonization for the lower three voices in the key of F# and traveling very chromatically through the tonalities of the dominant, the supertonic, the sub-dominant and the tonic, creating thus an eerie, solemn effect for the peculiar event. Messiaen adds poignancy and mystery by creating a melody reminiscent of early chant and borrowed from from foreign keys, primarily the parallel minor, and placing it in the top voice; juxtaposing it thus against the organum-like structure and clashing against its harmonies.
Spaseniye sodelal (1912)
Pavel Chesnokov (1877-1944)
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Composed in 1912, Chesnokov’s Spaseniye is one of the last sacred works of the composer. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 Chesnokov was forced to turn to the composition of secular music: under the new Communist rule artists were prohibited to produce any kind of sacred art. In 1933 the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, whose last choirmaster had been Chesnokov, was demolished to construct a government building for the Soviet regime; after this action Chesnokov stopped composing music altogether. Spaseniye is a setting of Psalm 74:12 based on a Kievan chant and composed as a Friday communion hymn of the Russian Orthodox Church liturgy. Chesnokov’s setting of the Kievan chant is harmonized in the tonalities of D major and the parallel key of b minor. The openness of the harmonic structure derives from the heavy usage of fifths and octaves, spanning a range from the low B in the bass line to the high A in the soprano line, constructed in a very homophonic texture that highlights the melodic content and the harmonic effect of the open chords.
O schöne Nacht (1877)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
One of the most prominent composers of the Romantic era, Johannes Brahms excelled in several of the traditional genres. In addition to his great contributions in the instrumental forms, Brahms also produced a rich repertory of choral music and is best known in this genre for his Ein deutsches Requiem and his motets. O schöne Nacht (1877) is found in a compilation of quartets for singers and piano, Brahms’s Vier Quartette für vier Singstimmen und Klavier, Opus 62 (1884). In O schöne Nacht, the poet Georg Friederich Daumer draws upon elements from nature to depict a lovely night, full of the urgency of young romance, and perfectly suited for a passionate fulfillment. Brahms music reflects this atmosphere creating a syncopated rhythm that arpeggiates harmonies in the offbeats, creating thus the effect of urgency and anxiety, ironically contrasting the serene description of the lovely night. Brahms’ affinity for word painting is reflected in his masterful musical depiction of the eroticism of the text. When the nightingale is referenced the rhythmic speed increases and the melody takes more excited jumps resembling the mighty singing of the bird, the excitement finds rhythmic and harmonic release at the end of the phrase through sextuplet driven harmonies. The very next reference is that of the youth drawing close to his beloved, Brahms sets the imagery by having the male voices sing their line and adding the female voices imitatively, layering the female sound on top of the male and thus creating a twirling effect for the two sounds that is released at the word gently, word that is emphatically repeated in duple meter pulses and is harmonically fulfilled at the final exclamation of the lovely night. The final lovely night is now fulfilled as the offbeat pulse has been decreased by sustaining the same notes, as opposed to the former arpeggiated form, and as a melodic accompaniment in the bass line soothes and alleviates this final release into calmness.
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